The first thing that struck me when I stumbled out of the car in Lakeville, CT last Friday was how clean the air smelled. Boston’s air is stale and lifeless, and I get used to it so easily. So I stood there for a minute and took this in: mountains in the distance, the sound of a nearby stream, light snow flurries, and that sweet clean air. Otherwise, total silence. I needed nothing more to raise my spirits. This was my first visit to the Berkshires, after three years living in Boston, and I immediately understood why so many New Yorkers and Bostonians go here. Route 7 winds through picturesque New England towns at a relaxed pace. How had I missed this?
Yet somehow I managed to arrive before Starbucks. And that could only be good, because we wanted nothing to do with a cup of coffee. Nancy, Laurie and I were here to visit Harney & Sons’ shop and tea tasting room, in whose parking lot we were now standing. A path through the snow-covered garden led to their front door. Nostrils now detoxed, I stepped.
The tasting room was cozy and bright, with things tucked away in every corner. Myriad teapots—glass, porcelain, and cast iron, French tablecloths, Scottish shortbread, Moroccan tea glasses, jams and jellies, and so on. Oh, did I mention the tea?
Each tea was a sensory overload. I started by choosing one from the hundred or so varieties available. OK, “Paris.” The girl behind the counter took a large black and gold canister down from the shelf, opened it up, and showed off the goods. I pushed aside the feeling of being offered illicit drugs, leaned over the counter and went in for a whiff. Beyond the immediate visceral impact, this tea, and many of the others, evoked memories—of my grandmother, my parents, last winter’s big snow storm, and so on.
Were I interested—and I always was—she’d make a cup of it for me to taste. Of the ten or so teas I tried, few needed sugar. Milk wasn’t even offered. It was here that I became a tea snob. There were teas with five distinct flavors that arrived at different times. There were teas from the mountains and teas from the valleys. There was Winter White Earl Grey, there was Fenghuang Shuixiang, and there was Rooibus Chai. After two hours of tea tasting, and the mild warning signs of caffeine-induced cardiac arrest that followed, I managed to pick a handful of teas to take home, and we finally buzzed out of the shop.
High-quality tea is a hot commodity in America these days, and Harney has become the largest distributor of the good stuff. John Harney started the business in the basement of his Salisbury, CT hotel 20 years ago, and he now sells tea to everyone from Au Bon Pain to the Ritz Carlton. The company just moved into a bigger factory for the third time in as many years.
The factory is set back from Route 44 in Middleton, NY. Bev Kosak, who sits among small offices in the front of the building where mail order calls are taken, gave us a tour. The factory is about 35,000 sq. ft, on two levels, and handles everything from tea blending to shipping out individual orders. Bev took us through the process in order, starting with a large storage room filled with specialty tea crates from around the world, sorted by variety. Most of their tea arrives via Hamburg, Germany—the tea distribution capitol of the world—in big wooden crates and boxes. From here, tea is moved into plastic containers, 50 and 75 pounds at a time. Some teas are then blended in 10-foot high rotating drums. I imagined how much scaling trouble they must have had going from tea blends made by hand, in a small mixing bowl, to these huge cement mixers. Even the best recipes don’t survive that kind of scaling, so they probably had to do a lot of experimentation to get things right, slowly working their way up to larger and larger mixers.
Once all the blending is done, the teas are ready to be packaged. Loose tea is measured and packaged in canisters and bags by hand, but the tea bags, both of the silk and paper variety, are made by machine. Vacuum cleaner A, located at one end of the Rube Goldberg contraption, sucks up tea from a 75 pound drum B, and fills each bag C with exactly the right amount. The bags are sealed shut, tags are attached, 20 are counted out, and a box, is built and filled. Finished boxes stack up neatly at the other end of the machine.
Once the tea is packaged, it goes to an inventory storage area, much like an aisle of a grocery store, filled with every product Harney produces. The people who fill orders and ship them out go to these inventory racks to get what they need, box them up, slap on a label, and away it goes.
I haven’t been in many factories before, so I had images from Metropolis in my mind before going in, of the incomprehensible machines, and of workers as cogs, putting in 20 hours a day, not able to see what role they play in the bigger picture. I don’t think many factories in America are like this, and Harney definitely isn’t. The people at Harney were clearly enjoying themselves, and I think the product and the company’s growth reflect that. The visit reaffirmed the idea that business is all about the people and the relationships. At Harney’s current size, not a small factory, I was happy to be able to get my head around the entire process. Next year, who knows.